Have you ever noticed that you're not digesting your food as well when you're stressed? Or that you tend to get sick just when you're the most busy?
The first thing to understand about stress is that it's not something that happens to you but the way that your body responds to an overwhelming set of stimuli.
Imagine the following situation: you’re walking in the street and a car comes skidding right near you, hits its horn, and almost hits you. Naturally, you get a huge fright from it. Most of us would consider this a 'stressful situation'. However, in reality, it wasn't the situation that was stressful but you who had a stressful reaction to it.
Whenever we get stressed, we’re triggering an evolutionary response that is there to help us survive. In our evolutionary past, we would have encountered many situations to trigger this fight or flight response due to being in a life threatening situation, like a bear chasing us, perhaps...
Fast forward to our modern western lifestyle… We are all still having the same exact stress responses, however, now, to situations that are not life threatening at all. For example, we might get the same stress response for getting a parking ticket, being late to pay rent, or receiving an unwanted text.
So, what’s really going on here?
Our bodies have 2 different sets of nervous systems. The Central Nervous System is governed by the conscious, thinking mind and includes speaking, waving your hand, etc. The Autonomous Nervous System governs aspects of our body that aren’t in our control like our heart beat, digestion, or healing of any wounds.
Our ANS is divided into two parts: the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS).
The Parasympathetic Nervous System controls homeostasis, or the maintenance of the body's systems. When we’re here, our body is relaxed enough that can go into a mode of rest, digest, and repair. Some call it ‘the green zone’. You think think of this as the 'housekeeping' system.
Our Sympathetic Nervous System, on the other hand, is triggered when we’re more stressed or excited (chemically, stress and excitation are actually the same thing). It is known as ‘the red zone’ or the ‘fight-or-flight’ response. Think of this as the emergency system.
What’s interesting is that our body cannot be in both states at the same time. So when it enters the calm and relaxed state (SNS), it turns off the stress state (PNS). But when we go into the stress mode, it turns off a number of functions associated with the calm and relaxed state that are vital to our long term survival.
Today, most of us are living in the Sympathetic state. In other words, we're merely surviving.
What happens when you're in the Sympathetic Nervous System is active:
When your body goes into the Sympathetic Nervous State, it does so in order to protect you from some perceived danger. As mentioned above, this could be real danger or just a piece of overwhelming stimuli, like an exam tomorrow. In order to prepare you for the 'danger' to come, your body will do the following to compensate:
suppress immune system
speed up heart rate
increase blood pressure
increase glucose levels in the blood
How to switch to the Parasympathetic State
Meditation - Meditation has been shown, time and time again, to rebuild, support, and even strengthen the nervous system. I believe that it does this because of two reasons; the first being the shift in awareness towards the present moment and second being the attention to our breath. Just as every emotion is associated with a type of breath (surprise = gasp, relief = sigh), I believe that we can shift our state of consciousness using our breath. (If you live in Hong Kong and would like to join my upcoming Present Moment Awareness Meditation workshop, please contact me through contact form)
Yoga - The Sun Salutation is one of the most well-known flows in yoga, and with good reason! It is a combination of deep nasal breathing and a series of flexion/extension yoga asanas that support the body's flexibility, as well as, strength. Sun Salutations have been found to support the flow of cerebral spinal fluid, which lubricates and washing the brain and central nervous system.
Exercise - This one is pretty obvious, isn't it. Exercise helps release stress and inflict a sense of joy and free-living. However, the next time you go out to exercise, focus on breathing, solely, from your nose. Studies have proven that breathing through the mouth leads to a very shallow breath, activating the fight-or-flight (sympathetic) nervous system. However, when people breath through their nose, the calming and restorative parasympathetic nervous system is activated.
Get Outside - Given our hectic lifestyles, there is no arguing that the peace and calm that resides within nature could do us all some good. Double points if you practice in-motion meditation (just active focus on your breathing) while you're outside!
Eat Relaxed - Naturally, when you're stressed for time and you're forced to rush through your meal, your digestion will not work as well since your body will be in the Sympathetic State. Plan your meals ahead of time so that you have enough time to eat peacefully and mindfully, really savouring each bite. And try to avoid any distractions while eating like watching TV, driving, scrolling through instagram, etc.
Eat Whole, Seasonal Foods - It comes as no surprise that packaged and sugar-laden foods trigger the Sympathetic state, but did you know that consuming healthy foods that are not in season can also put your body under stress? "The winter months, for example, are when warmer, heavier, high-protein and high-fat foods are harvested. These heavier foods are naturally balancing and supportive for the central nervous system during the cold, dry winter months."